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An Open Letter to the Conservatives in My Life

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(Please note that by “conservatives” here I’m addressing those who are more conservative than I am in the religious sense, not the political sense. I could write a whole other letter to the political conservatives I know, but this is not that letter).

A couple of controversies lately, some personal, some public, have led me to reflect on the divide between those who get labelled as “conservatives” and those who get labelled as “liberals” in a particular context. Some people disdain labels altogether, but they have their uses. Within the context of Christianity in general, I’m liberal on some issues and conservative on others, but within my own denomination I’d definitely qualify as a “liberal Adventist” and I’m fine with that label.

Here’s something I’m not fine with, and I’m addressing it to every fellow Christian who is more conservative than I am:

It’s OK that your views differ from mine. It makes me crazy sometimes, but deep down I do believe we need a diversity of viewpoints as we collectively grope our way towards Truth. We need disagreement and lively debate.

What I’m not fine with is the assumption — very common in Adventist circles, and I think within Christianity generally — that liberals are liberal because we care less about following God and believing the Bible. That we choose our viewpoints and practices because they’re an easier path, because we want to please ourselves or the world around us. There’s often an assumption that we lack your tough-minded commitment to obeying God no matter the cost. That being liberal equates to being “lukewarm,” and that the truly committed are always the truly conservative.

Here’s what I want you to understand. I am a “liberal,” by your terms, because I am every bit as passionate about following Jesus as you are — I have just drawn different conclusions about what it means to follow Him.

I know that’s hard for some to accept. I’ll give a few examples.

1) Let’s start with one that’s pretty Adventist-specific. I’m sure believers from other denominations can find similar examples within their own church culture, but among Adventists, how you observe the Sabbath is often a pretty clear indicator of how “liberal” or “conservative” you are. So let’s say it’s a Sabbath afternoon in summer. Church is over, as is Sabbath lunch, and by happy coincidence we are both sitting beside a beautiful clear sparkling lake with our families. You tell your children not to jump in the water because “we don’t go swimming on Sabbath.” Or, if you’re in a position of authority, you might just close down the waterfront at church camp for Sabbath afternoon. I, meanwhile, will do what I do every Sabbath in summer at our cabin: jump into the water along with the kids and spend the Sabbath hours splashing, paddling and floating.

Now, it’s perfectly OK with me that we have these diverse practices. You do what you believe is right and I have no problem with that. What bothers me is when you imply that I spend my Sabbath afternoon in the water because I am less concerned about Sabbathkeeping, because the Sabbath is less special or holy or precious to me than it is to you.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. I go swimming on Sabbath (when weather and location permit) because I love the Sabbath and the Lord of the Sabbath, and I genuinely believe that there is no better way to praise Him than to be out enjoying His Creation.

A trivial example, perhaps, but one that helps illustrate the point I’m making. On to weightier matters.

2) I take stands you disagree with on controversial issues — I believe our church (and all churches!) should ordain people to the ministry equally without regard to gender. I believe same-sex marriage ought to be legal and that gay people have the same civil rights that straight people do.  You might think — in fact, I’ve heard some of you say — that I hold these views because I don’t respect the Bible, or don’t take what it says seriously, or that I’d rather follow my own wisdom or the wisdom of “the world” than follow the Bible.

In fact, I hold these views because I believe in the Bible. I certainly interpret it different than you do, but I take the Bible very seriously. I’ve adopted those beliefs not because they’re popular or easy but because, after careful and prayerful Bible study, I believe they more truly reflect the spirit of the Bible and of the way Jesus treated people in the Gospels. You can disagree with how I read Scripture and we can debate it, but please don’t do me the disservice of thinking I don’t care about what the Bible says or about shaping my life according to its principles.

3) When I choose to focus on social justice and on serving the poor rather than on “evangelism,” I sometimes hear the accusation that this is a soft, social-gospel emphasis, followed because it is popular. I’m not a serious Christian if I’m not all about preaching the gospel. I’m not a good Adventist if my focus is on feeding the hungry (without slipping in an invitation to an evangelistic meeting) rather than on proclaiming the Three Angels’ Message. 

But the truth is, I take the Matthew 25 parable of the sheep and the goats seriously and I really believe that caring for the poor, the hungry and those in need is every bit as important as preaching to them. Doing those things is not “easier” than knocking on doors and offering people Bible studies — both types of service have their challenges. I believe social justice is a huge concern of God’s, which is why it’s my concern as well.

I could think of more examples. So could you. But the central point is the same in each one: whatever our differences, I am not lacking in love for God, passion for my faith, or the desire to follow His path.

I’m not arguing that I’m as good a Christian as you are.I’m probably not. That’s up to God to decide.

I often fail as a Christian. I don’t always live out the love that I believe is central to our faith. I lose my temper; I snap at my kids. I don’t read my Bible or pray as much as I think I should. I may not live my faith as fully and as effectively as you do.

But I don’t care about it less, just because my faith is different from yours.

I disagree with you on so many points. I think the way you read the Bible is short-sighted and often inconsistent. I think you observe the letter of the law at the cost of its spirit. I could debate with you for hours about some of these controversial issues on which we disagree.

But I always recognize that your conservatism, your beliefs and your practices, come from a place of great faith. Whatever our differences, I know that you really care about our mutual faith, that you are dedicated to God and His Word, and that you do not make faith-related decisions lightly.

All I ask is that you do the same for me.

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5 thoughts on “An Open Letter to the Conservatives in My Life

  1. Thank you for baring your soul here Trudy. I would definitely qualify as one who is more conservative than you are yet I appreciate your perspective. On some points we agree and on others, like same sex marriage, we’ll have to respectfully disagree. It is important though that we recognize that many things that we assume are black and white, a simple case of right or wrong are anything but. I also recognize that I have many faults myself and much that God must still teach me. I don’t have everything figured out.

    In my experience, conservative religious folk do tend to be nastier than the liberal ones. I believe that this comes from the natural human tendency to force our will and our views on others. Every religious institution throughout history that has gotten power of the political system has used it to impose its brand of faith on everyone and woe to the one who views things differently! This unfortunately comes from our natural flesh which looks to set itself up as god over others.

    Having said this though Trudy, I would also caution the ‘liberals’ such as yourself to reserve judgement over the pharisaical conservatives. It is so easy for both sides to assume the way they view things must be right and the other side is in error. We sometimes even comfort ourselves with the hypocrisies or failings of the other camp in order to justify our viewpoint.

    I for one honestly and earnestly seek to know God’s viewpoint and not my own. I would hope that as God reveals his will to me through my daily spiritual walk with him that I will be willing to let go of my position if and when God clearly reveals it to be wrong. God sometimes uses people from the opposite camp to mirror our faults and lack of love which can then bring us under conviction to change…Having said all of this, there would be one point I would hope that my liberal brothers and sisters would keep in mind…

    I believe as I do and act as I do because I am convicted that it is what God asks of me. If I didn’t follow my convictions it could ultimately lead me to shipwreck my faith altogether. Personally, I’ve been in the legalism camp, I’ve also been in the free grace camp and now I strive to live in the straight and narrow road found in the middle. James 4:17 makes it clear that if I know something is right and I don’t do it, for me it is sin. I am not naive enough to think that everything that is right and wrong in life can be clearly defined in black and white. Grey exists on many issues. I would hope that at times like these, when faced with grey areas, I have a strong enough relationship with God that I can hear his voice behind me telling me which way to go (Isa. 30:21)

    Let me conclude my comment by saying that I believe that we can agree on one important point. Each of us are at different points in our faith journey. We each have different interpretations of scripture on various points. What ultimately counts however, isn’t that we have perfect uniformity on all beliefs and doctrines. What counts is what we do with Jesus Christ. We are saved by grace. Not by works. Not by theology. Not by being a good person. Not by being an Adventist. We are saved through the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. When we believe in him, he saves us. The minutiae will be cleared up once we are glorified at his coming.

    Thank you for your courage Trudy! We need you and we need your perspective. It helps us conservatives stretch, think and be challenged on some important issues. Don’t stop writing!

    God bless!

    • Thanks Joe — and I really appreciate your comment, since most of the Facebook comments I got were from fellow “liberals” and it is good to hear a conservative perspective.

      I do agree that love and respect for each others’ views needs to come from BOTH sides. I’m thinking about your statement that “conservative religious folk tend to be nastier than liberal ones,” which in my experience I tend to agree with, although as a liberal, I didn’t want to come out and say that because it sounds judgemental! And I know some incredibly kind, generous, accepting folks who are MUCH more conservative than I am.

      But I think one reason conservatives may have a harder time accepting liberals is that in order to accept that someone who differs with you is sincere and honestly motivated by a desire to follow God, you have to accept that two sincere people can sit down to read the same Bible, pray to the same Holy Spirit to guide them … and reach completely different conclusions. We see it happen all the time and wonder, “How can this be?”

      This has been a bit of a struggle for me to accept but I think it’s easier for me, especially with a more open view of what Biblical inspiration means, than it is for some more conservative people. At least some of the conservative Christians I know are very invested in the idea that there is only ONE RIGHT WAY to read the Bible and that if everyone approached it in the same spirit they would inevitably come to the same conclusions — so when someone else reaches a different belief, it becomes easier to say, “Oh, that person must not care about the Bible, or their motivations must be selfish,” or whatever, rather than facing the fact that what God has left us to guide us is actually a pretty complex Book, and we don’t all get the same things out of it.

  2. It sounds like things have been rough lately!

    I don’t think any of us are “good” Christians. We’re all crappy Christians, mucking around and mucking things up. Thank God, He works with us anyway!

    I believe in social justice. Deeply. I haven’t had any flack for that, but I’ve been moving in different circles lately, so that might be part of it.

    You’re a tough cookie. I’m glad you fight for what you believe in! 🙂

  3. I remember hearing the story of one of my aunts who, as a child, asked what time sundown was. It was late, because this was summer, and when she heard the bad news she said, “I hates the Sabbath.” I think you’ve given your children an upbringing wherein they can celebrate the Sabbath instead of hating it.

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